[This page is devoted to Abraham Van Helsing, the famous vampire hunter of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. The main reason for creating this page is that the release in 2004 of the movie “Van Helsing,” directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Hugh Jackman, Richard Roxburgh and Kate Beckinsale, will undoubtedly result in an increased interest in the original character.]
“Bram” was a shortened form of “Abraham,” a name Stoker shared with his father. That he selected this name for one of his leading characters suggests a degree of identification with that fictional person. “Abraham” also has biblical resonance, echoing the name of the patriarch and leader of the ancient Israelites.
As for the surname “Van Helsing,” a number of possibilities have been suggested. It may derive from Dr Hesselius, the fictional narrator of Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous vampire tale “Carmilla” (1872). Given Stoker’s familiarity with Shakespearean plays as manager of the Lyceum Theatre, the origin is possibly “Helsingor the Danish town in which Hamlets’ castle is located. A third consideration is Van Helmont, an ancient alchemist mentioned briefly in T J Pettigrew’s On Superstitions Connected with the History and Nature of Medicine and Surgery (1844), one of Stokers known source-texts for Dracula.
Whether Stoker intended to base Van Helsing on anyone he knew is uncertain. There has been some speculation, but that is all it is. For example, some point out that Van Helsing shares a few traits with Stoker himself: not only the same first name but a Dutch ancestry. Others contend that Van Helsing was modeled loosely on Arminius Vambery, a learned Hungarian professor that Stoker met in London. They argue that Stoker’s knowledge about vampires (and about the real Dracula) came from Vambery, and are transmitted in the novel through Van Helsing. The problem is that there is no evidence to indicate that Vambery told Stoker anything about either vampires or Vlad Dracula.
Perhaps the strongest case for a model (assuming there was one) is a contemporary German professor, Max Muller, who was a specialist in religion and mythology. In his early Notes for Dracula, Stoker conceived of three characters who were later combined into one (Van Helsing): one of these was identified as “a German professor of history” who was to be named Max Windshoeffel. The change from German to Dutchman was made later.
Role In The Novel
If we read the novel as a story of the supremacy of good over evil, then Van Helsing is undoubtedly the representation of all that is positive. He combines a number of traits: he is the man of knowledge who combines science and superstition to solve the mystery of the attacks on Lucy; he is the fearless leader in the hunt to track down Dracula; he provides the moral inspiration (in terms of his Christian faith) to bolster the others as they contend with the horrors of the vampire.
Van Helsing, who comes from Amsterdam, is brought into the story through Dr John Seward who is attempting to solve the mystery of Lucy’s illness. Seward refers to Van Helsing as his “old friend and master,” a world expert on “obscure diseases” and philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day.” While Van Helsing's age is never given, there are several references to the fact that he is "old.” His professional credentials are very well advertised, beginning with the list of degrees that follows his name. He is a medical doctor, a doctor of philosophy, etc., etc. His knowledge is encyclopedic, ranging from Tacitus to the latest theories about hypnotism.
As for his disposition, we are told he has “an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, and indomitable resolution, self-command and toleration.” We are given a few hints about Van Helsing’s personal life: his wife still lives, presumably committed to an asylum, his son (who would have been Arthur’s age) died as a child.
Perhaps Van Helsing’s greatest claim to fame is that it is through him that Stoker presents to the reader the details of vampire lore: what predisposes a person to become a vampire, what the strengths and limitations of vampires are, and how to destroy the creatures. His “lecture” to the others in Chapter 18 reads as a primer on vampirism.
Deconstructing Van Helsing
Traditionally, Dracula was read as a novel which plays out the ancient struggle between good and evil, a morality tale in which the forces of light overcome the powers of darkness. But in the past 30 years or so, this view has been challenged. In 1975, Fred Saberhagen published a novel The Dracula Tape, in which the Count narrates the story from his point of view. He is presented in a sympathetic light, while Van Helsing is shown to be a bungling, narrow-minded prude. Since then, Van Helsing has been deconstructed in many forms both in fiction and in scholarly studies, represented from everything from a xenophobic reactionary to a peeping tom. (For a sample of such readings, see my article “The Fearless Vampire Hunters” in Reflections on Dracula, Transylvania Press, 1997.)
Representation in movies
In movies, Van Helsing is as indispensable as the Count. Unlike Harker, Holmwood, Morris, Renfield and Seward, who "shape-shift" from film to film, the Professor is a constant presence. The first famous Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan, opposed Bela Lugosi in the 1931 version of "Dracula" from Universal. Peter Cushing has been identified with the role of Van Helsing more than any other actor. He played the Professor in numerous films, beginning with Horror of Dracula (with Christopher Lee) in 1958. Other actors who have mangled the English language as Van Helsing include Laurence Olivier (with Frank Langella, 1979) and Anthony Hopkins (with Gary Oldman, 1992). And one cannot forget Mel Brooks, whose film Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) exposes the vampire hunters to parody. There are many variations on this theme: Professor Ambrosius in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); the washed-out horror movie host in Fright Night (1985); the religious fanatic in Blood Ties (1991); the mindless California teenager in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992); and, of course, Dr. Von Goosewing.